WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama tamped down the prospect of imminent U.S. military action in Syria on Thursday, saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” for degrading the violent militant group seeking to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.
The president spoke shortly before convening a meeting of his national security advisers on a range of Pentagon options for confronting the Islamic State group. However, officials said Obama was not expected to emerge from the meeting with a decision on which avenue to pursue.
The U.S. is already striking Islamic State targets in Iraq, and officials have said the president is considering similar action in neighboring Syria. The militants have moved with ease between the two countries, effectively blurring the border.
But Obama, who has long been reluctant to plunge the U.S. military into Syria, said confronting the Islamic State would require more than just American action. He called for a regional strategy that could bring in other nations and focus on political as well as military options.
In blunt terms, the president said it was time for Middle Eastern nations to “stop being ambivalent” about the aims of extremist groups like the Islamic State.
“They have no ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people,” Obama said, alluding to the group’s announcement last week that it had killed American journalist James Foley. The militants also have threatened to kill other U.S. hostages in Syria.
The president said he was dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East soon to discuss the matter with regional partners. Obama will also meet with world leaders in Europe next week during a NATO summit.
The heightened threat from the Islamic State comes at a time of instability elsewhere in the world that has challenged Obama’s desire to keep the U.S. out of military conflicts. Russia has escalated its threatening moves in Ukraine, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russia on Thursday of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops.
Despite the increased tensions, Obama ruled out any military options in Ukraine and proposed no shift in an American-led strategy that has yet to convince Moscow to halt operations against its far weaker neighbor.
In outlining his strategy for confronting the Islamic State, the president said his top priority remains rolling back the militants’ gains in Iraq, where he has said they pose a threat to U.S. personnel in Erbil and Baghdad.
“Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected,” he said.
Some of Obama’s top military advisers have said the Islamic State cannot be defeated unless the U.S. also goes after the group inside Syria. The president didn’t rule out that possibility, but said that if he were to expand the military mission, he would consult with members of Congress, who are due to return to Washington in early September.
“The suggestion has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, will be left in the dark,” Obama said. “That’s not what’s going to happen.”
However, the president did not commit to seeking a vote from Congress if he were to decide to proceed with military action. One year ago, Obama was on the verge of taking strikes against the Syrian government it retaliation for its use of chemical weapons, but abruptly shifted course and decided to seek congressional approval.
The surprise move threw his policy into chaos. Congress balked at Obama’s request for a vote, contributing to his decision to ultimately scrap the strikes. The White House said it also abandoned plans to take military action after Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles.
This time, with the midterm elections just over two months away, lawmakers may be even less inclined to take a politically risky vote on military action.
“I see no reason to come to Congress because, if he does, it’ll just become a circus,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said this week.
Still, some lawmakers are calling for Obama to put military action in Syria to a vote. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a frequent critic of the administration’s foreign policy, has said Congress should “certainly” authorize such steps. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and White House ally, has also called for a vote on the president’s broader strategy for going after the Islamic State.
“I am calling for the mission and objectives for this current significant military action against ISIL to be made clear to Congress, the American people, and our men and women in uniform,” said Kaine, using one of the acronyms for the militant group. “Congress should vote up or down on it.”